On Thursday June 4th, 2009, I had a surgical biopsy done on my right and left maxillary sinuses. After doing the surgery, the surgeon felt pretty confident that it was something other than cancer. At least that was his initial response. We waited through the weekend to get the actual results but were pretty positive because of the optimism of the doctor.
On Monday, June 8th, my life changed forever. The doctor called my wife with horrible news. I will never forget that day standing in the middle of a department store seeing my wife mouth the words “cancer” to me. I was in shock; I took the phone from her so I could talk to the doctor myself. He told me that they found squamous cell cancer cells in my right maxillary sinus. The cancer was so aggressive that it had gone through my palate and started to protrude out of my gums. We were so confused and distraught. We left everything in the store, grabbed our 2 year old and went to the car. We just sat in the parking lot of that department store, crying. That’s all we could do in that moment.
All I was thinking was how could I, a healthy non-smoking 30 year old male in good physical shape, have cancer? And sinus cancer at that – something I had never even heard of.
After we collected ourselves, we immediately called family and friends to let them know what was going on. Some of our closest friends came over within hours just to sit and pray with us. Although I was scared and unsure of what the future would bring, there was this small bit of internal faith that I had, that told me everything was going to be ok and that I was going to get through this. I flash backed to a guy I heard on the radio earlier that year who was in the sports world and fighting cancer. I remember thinking; wow this guy is so positive and upbeat about his experience even though it’s extremely hard. I said to myself, if I ever had to go through something like that, that’s how I would want to do it. Little did I know, that thought was going to be challenged the same year.
Fast forward to treatment. After meeting with a series of doctors, I landed with the right team that I needed at that time. They came up with a plan of treatment and we moved forward. I had major surgery – a right maxillectomy and neck dissection to remove the cancer and any possible impacted lymph nodes. Then all within the same surgery they did a fibula free flap replacement using the bone in my leg to craft a new jawbone and tissue from my leg to create a new palate. I was in surgery for almost 12 hours! After the surgery I endured 3 months of chemo and radiation. I had two different types of chemo weekly and radiation every weekday. I continued the treatment until I could no longer carry on because the chemo was so strong that it was causing me to lose my hearing. My doctors wanted me to go for the strongest course of treatment because I was young and they wanted to be sure there was no cancer remaining in my body.
The treatment was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I lost my sense of taste for a while, I had sores and breakouts in my mouth, throat and on my face. I could no longer eat because of the pain and had to be put on a feeding tube for nutrition. I was tired all the time and just felt bad most of the time. Because of the surgery, I lost the feeling in my upper lip and part of my face. My nose would drain sometimes and I didn’t even know it. I was often embarrassed about my appearance but I was determined that I would not stop living my life. So, I went on with my family and my life as if things were normal even though I knew I looked horrible.
As I was going through all of this, my beautiful wife was busy trying to take care of me, a two-year-old and keep herself healthy given that she was pregnant. She started to have complications while I was going through my treatments. At one time, we were both in the hospital at the same time on different sides of town.
What got me through all of this? My faith, my desire to see my children grow up with a father, and the support of my family and friends. I’ve always had a strong sense of purpose and I just believed from beginning to end that there was more for me to do on this earth and it wasn’t my time yet. Despite what I felt I looked like, my wife was always there to love and encourage me, which really gave me strength. We had a lot of help from family, friends and church members to help us get through this. We couldn’t have done it without them.
Two weeks after my last treatment my wife gave birth to our second daughter, Zoe, which means life. I struggled getting back and forth to the hospital and taking care of her but I did it and I have not looked back since then.
What is life like now? Now I’m 8 years cancer free and my face has healed. I don’t look exactly like myself before cancer but it’s close. People are still shocked to hear how much I went through because they don’t see that in my face, which I think, is a good thing. My smile is distorted and I have a big indention in my cheek due to the missing tissue. I’ve tried a few cosmetic surgeries to improve the appearance and it has progressively gotten better but still not exactly where I want it. My biggest struggle today is the limited opening of my mouth (15 mm to be exact). It causes me issues with eating and replacing my missing tooth. Every dentist or prosthodontist I see struggles with helping me in this area.
Other than these cosmetic things, I’ve carried on with my life and do everything else that I want to do. I now have 3 beautiful daughters. I’ve progressed in my career in executive management and I’ve become a 1st degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do. All in all life is good and I am extremely grateful every year that I see.
My perspective is very different now; I never take time or my purpose for granted. I always try to remember that things could have gone the other way. If you ever doubt whether or not you can make it through the most difficult of circumstances, don’t doubt yourself, because through faith, you can.